World > >Terrorism & Security
posted February 6, 2006 at 11:00 a.m.

US, British media tread carefully in cartoon furor

Papers have not reprinted Muhammad caricatures, but support right to publish them.
Protests over 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad spread across the Muslim world over the weekend, as Danish embassies were set on fire in Syria and Lebanon and at least six people were killed during protests in Afghanistan and Somalia.

But while the demonstrations were inflamed at least in part by the cartoons' republishing by newspapers across continental Europe, the media in the United States have largely abstained from representing the cartoons, citing them as "too offensive to run," reports Editor and Publisher.


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"They wouldn't meet our standards for what we publish in the paper," said Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, which ran a front-page story on the issue Friday, but has not published the cartoons. "We have standards about language, religious sensitivity, racial sensitivity and general good taste." ...

At USA Today, deputy foreign editor Jim Michaels offered a similar explanation. "At this point, I'm not sure there would be a point to it," he said about publishing the cartoons. "We have described them, but I am not sure running it would advance the story." Although he acknowledged that the cartoons have news value, he said the offensive nature overshadows that.

Several major US newspapers have published editorials on the cartoons. The Los Angeles Times decided not to republish the "insensitive images," but noted in an editorial, "It is not necessary to agree with these cartoons to defend another's right to publish them."

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who for months maintained a sensible position ��� that a private newspaper's editorial judgment is not the government's business ��� is now walking around issuing letters of regret. Norway's deputy foreign minister, Raymond Johansen, traveled to Lebanon to deliver an official apology.

Such sentiments foster the dangerous notion that governments are responsible for, and answerable to, their countries' private media. And it judges all news content, satirical or otherwise, by the standard of how much offense it gives, a surefire path toward self-censorship.

The Boston Globe, while acknowledging the right of newspapers to print material that may offend, argues that " newspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance."

This was a case of seeking a reason to exercise a freedom that had not been challenged. No government, political party, or corporate interest was trying to deny the paper its right to publish whatever it wanted. The original purpose of printing the cartoons – some of which maliciously and stupidly identified Mohammed with terrorists, who could want nothing better than to be associated with the prophet – was plainly to be provocative.

The Christian Science Monitor expressed similar sentiments in an editorial to be published Tuesday.

[A clash of civilizations] is less likely if one side refuses to be baited, and that's where the Danish newspaper [Jyllands-Posten] got off track. Danish editor Flemming Rose solicited the drawings precisely because of their sensitive nature. He says Europe is being cowed into self-censorship by Muslims. Publishing the toons plants the flag for free speech.

Thankfully, Mr. Rose lives in a democracy and has a right to express his views. But he could have found a less in-your-face way of doing so. His plethora of illustrations was a cultural assault akin to staging a neo-Nazi rally in a Jewish neighborhood. It bordered on yelling "fire" in a crowded theater - not a matter for censorship but judgment.

The sanctity of freedom of the press may in fact be why American media have not run the cartoon, reports Reuters.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American Islamic Relations, said American newspapers have not rushed the cartoons into print perhaps because they feel secure in their constitutional free press protections.

"They don't feel the need to go out and be gratuitously insulting just to prove that they can do it, which is what the European media seem to be doing in almost a childish overreaction," he said.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, which republished one of the cartoons Saturday, did so to inform and not to exercise freedom of the press, reports Editor and Publisher.

The cartoon was being published "discreetly" with a note explaining the rationale, said Amanda Bennett, The Inquirer's editor.

"This is the kind of work that newspapers are in business to do," Bennett told the AP. "We're running this in order to give people a perspective of what the controversy's about, not to titillate, and we have done that with a whole wide range of images throughout our history...You run it because there's a news reason to run it," Bennett said. "The controversy does not appear to have died down. It's still a news issue."

Unlike their counterparts in continental Europe, the British media has abstained from reprinting the cartoons, citing reasons similar to those of American newspapers. In an editorial, The Guardian argues, "Insults, in cartoons or elsewhere, are best ignored, not punished...."

The Guardian believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend. It would be senselessly provocative to reproduce a set of images, of no intrinsic value, which pander to the worst prejudices about Muslims. To directly associate the founder of one of the world's three great monotheistic religions with terrorist violence - the unmistakable meaning of the most explicit of these cartoons - is wrong, even if the intention was satirical rather than blasphemous.

The Independent of London similarly "has no wish to publish the Danish cartoons many Muslims find so offensive," while noting that misunderstanding plagues both the Muslim community and the continental media in the furor over the cartoons.

In common with almost all British national newspapers, The Independent on Sunday recognises that re-publication would be regarded as a deliberate insult. Muslims are wrong to take this view. The motive for re-publishing would be primarily to see what all the fuss is about, and to wonder at the deficiencies of Danish humour. But when the deeply held beliefs of so many people has been made so clear, it requires a particularly childish kind of discourtesy to cause offence knowingly. "Can't take a joke" is the taunt of the bully through the ages.

The Scotsman suggested in an editorial that it is "cultural sensibility that goes to the heart of why France-Soir thought it appropriate to publish and the British news media broadly has not."

The freedom of the media to publish is indivisible and should brook no exceptions, save for that which is prohibited by law. There should be no "out of bounds" areas because the adherents of one particular ethnic or religious group are likely to protest more angrily or violently than others.

Yet a multicultural society can only hope to survive where there is respect for beliefs to which the majority does not adhere and where a decision to publish or not to publish offensive material has regard to the sensitivities of belief. No responsible news media should seek to gratuitously insult or offend sections of society for no other reason than the assertion that to publish would be "controversial". Merely to be "controversial" does not serve the public interest.

But while the British and American media institutions have nearly unanimously decided not to republish the cartoons, some commentators in both countries have argued that publishing the cartoons is acceptable. Andrew Sullivan, in an essay for Time, wrote that while the cartoons may be taboo to Muslims, he sees no reason why non-Muslims need to adhere to that idea.

You can respect a religion without honoring its taboos. I eat pork, and I'm not an anti-Semite. As a Catholic, I don't expect atheists to genuflect before an altar. If violating a taboo is necessary to illustrate a political point, then the call is an easy one. Freedom means learning to deal with being offended....

Yes, there's no reason to offend people of any faith arbitrarily. We owe all faiths respect. But the Danish cartoons were not arbitrarily offensive. They were designed to reveal Islamic intolerance--and they have now done so, in abundance. The West's principles are clear enough. Tolerance? Yes. Faith? Absolutely. Freedom of speech? Nonnegotiable.

Similarly, columnist Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe sees the Muslim uproar over the cartoons as an assault on the freedom of the press, one which the European media, by publishing the images, was resisting.

...There has been no comparable show of backbone in America, where (as of Friday) only the New York Sun has had the fortitude to the run some of the drawings.

...The freedom of speech we take for granted is under attack, and it will vanish if it is not bravely defended. Today the censors may be coming for some unfunny Mohammed cartoons, but tomorrow it is your words and ideas they will silence. Like it or not, we are all Danes now.

The BBC, which has called lingering still images of the cartoons "excessively offensive," has addressed charges of self-censorship on its website.

[Peter Horrocks, the editor of TV News, said] "I think if you compare the BBC's position to the whole of the UK printed press, where there hasn't been any publication whatsoever, we've clearly gone further than the whole of the printed press.

"But clearly we've taken a decision not to go further than that in order not to gratuitously offend the significant number of Muslims in Britain but also - because we make decisions for our pieces to be broadcast internationally - the very significant numbers of Muslim viewers of BBC World television." ...

Steve Herrmann, editor of BBC News Interactive, added, "When we cover any sensitive issue we have to balance our duty to report the story faithfully with our responsibility not to unnecessarily shock or offend our audience. ...In making such judgements it is the interests, needs and expectations of our audience as a whole which are our guiding principle."

Hamas moderates its rhetoric on Israel (The Times of London)
Senators Have Tough Questions for Gonzales (AP)
Interpol alert for al-Qaida militants who tunnelled out of prison in Yemen (Guardian)
• Feedback appreciated. E-mail Arthur Bright.

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